12 May

Miles Better

Roger Bannister

The media coverage surrounding the 60th anniversary of the first sub-four minute mile reminds us of the affection and reverence that still exists towards an achievement once believed to be beyond the capabilities of man.

Of course, there are many other examples of superior athleticism that have taken place since and - arguably - even before.

Among British athletes alone, Paula Radcliffe’s women’s marathon world record of 2:15:25 has survived over a decade and next year will most likely see Jonathan Edwards entering an incredible 20th year as a world record holder for his triple jump of 18.29m. Roger Bannister’s world mile record lasted just 46 days before Australian John Landy improved it. Yet it retains its status as one of humankind’s greatest feats of endurance, arguably sitting alongside Sir Edmund Hilary’s first successful ascent of Everest. Why? Because he was the first to breakthrough a previously unbreakable barrier. Also, its sheer simplicity ensured the wide appeal of the challenge. One mile, four laps, four minutes. What could be more straightforward than that?

Even the men’s 100m, the blue riband event of Olympic sport, was never afforded such status. Most people with a faint knowledge of running know of Roger Bannister. Less would be able to name the first man to run 100m in less than 10 seconds or even when it was (USA’s Jim Hines in 1968 – I checked Google for you).

But sprinting is a very specialist discipline, it is a challenge only within range of the gifted few. The mile is a more familiar distance to the layman. People walk miles, some of us run miles. We know the distance and we know what it feels like.

To be a great miler also requires much more than raw talent. It demands determination, dedication and mental toughness. In short, human traits we can all relate to. Athletics events require different levels of speed, endurance and skill. But none quite strike the perfect balance of all three like the mile.

Which is why the first sub four minute mile deserves its elevated status and Roger Bannister’s achievement merits celebration decades on. It was a victory not just for the British runner, but for the human spirit.